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        Prophetic Rhetoric and Moral Disagreement M. Cathleen Kaveny In his groundbreaking book, After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that “the most striking feature of contemporary moral utterance is that so much of it is used to express disagreements; and the most striking feature of the debates in which these disagreements are expressed is their interminable character .”1 In support of his claim,he gives examples from three well-known and seemingly interminable debates of our time: the debate over whether it is ever just to wage war, the abortion debate, and the debate about the relative priority of social equality and individual liberty.2 What has caused such disagreement? According to MacIntyre , it is the loss of a coherent tradition of moral reasoning once provided by Western Christianity. In the wake of the religious wars of the early modern era, the Enlightenment project aimed to provide the West with a rational, secular foundation for moral norms that was  04 Cunningham Ch4 1/27/09 11:15 AM Page 131  | M. Cathleen Kaveny both universally applicable and universally acceptable.With its failure, we are left with bits and pieces of incompatible moral traditions, the flotsam and jetsam from the shipwreck of innumerable attempts to formulate a coherent framework for moral reflection. In my view, MacIntyre’s diagnosis of the cause of moral disagreement is correct. It is, however, also incomplete. In the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century, our difficulties do not stem solely from the challenge of brokering the rival moral claims of Kantians and utilitarians, or negotiating the tension between hedonists and stoics. We also confront serious moral disputes among persons who see themselves as belonging to the same moral tradition, and as holding themselves accountable to the same values and the same account of the virtues. More specifically, we confront serious moral disputes among those who proclaim Jesus Christ their Lord and Savior and who allow their consciences to be shaped by both Scripture and the Christian tradition. Needless to say, identifying the source, nature, and gravity of moral disagreement among Christians is a complicated task. Doubtless , some self-proclaimed Christians are shaped more by the secular culture than they are by the gospel. Furthermore, no Christian theologian can deny that human sinfulness, particularly a distorted form of self-interest, can contribute not only to an inability to act in accordance with our moral obligations but also to an incapacity to recognize and acknowledge those obligations. As St. Thomas Aquinas observed, moral blindness due to sin can afflict entire communities, as well as individuals.3 At the same time, however, Aquinas reminds us that not all moral disagreements about how to handle specific cases are rooted in the disordered self-interest of one or all parties to the disagreement. We ought to expect, he tells us, greater levels of disagreement about morality as we move from general principles to judgments about what to do in specific situations. Why is that the case? Following Aristotle, Aquinas notes that prudence, which is right reason about things to be done, does not operate with a complete set of general laws that cover 04 Cunningham Ch4 1/27/09 11:15 AM Page 132 all cases without exception. Prudence deals with specific actions, which are what Aristotle calls “contingent singulars.”4 What counts as the prudent course of action frequently depends on one’s assessment of the background factual situation in cases of uncertainty. People of goodwill often differ in their assessment of the relevant facts, particularly in their predictions of the consequences of a certain course of action. Nonetheless, setting the cases of good faith disagreement about the facts between and among committed Christians aside does not eliminate the problem. We continue to find ourselves faced with deep clashes of moral judgment among well-educated, committed adherents of the same religious tradition. Moreover, these clashes do not give rise to fruitful discussion about differences but instead signal the breakdown of conversation, and frequently even the breakdown of the bonds of community. The painfulness of these breaks in personal relationships frequently make it impossible for those involved to collaborate on behalf of the common good. In my view, at least some of these clashes, and some of these ensuing breakdowns, are due at least as much to moral style as they are to disagreements about moral substance. More specifically, in making their case in the public square, many American Christians draw upon the passionate rhetoric exemplified in...


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